The plane landed in Fort Lauderdale and Dick and Royce (Royal) were picked up by a pretty young woman wearing a tank top, shorts, and silver antlers and driven to Hertz. Royal’s brother Brandt arranged such things—or his secretary Jacki did (“Bag claim F. Laud surprise,” she’d texted.) When things like the Lexus Reindeer unexpectedly appeared, the secretary knew it made Royal’s day. It took his friends—it took him—a while to sort it out: Jacki’s kindness, perfectly paired with her taste for the absurd.
“Donna,” the reindeer said, when Dick asked her name. Their bags, one each, were in the trunk. When she’d hopped out of the silver Lexus, they’d both been impressed with her extremely short shorts.
“Donner? Your name’s Donner, and you’ve got a friend named Blitzen?” Royal teased.
“Donner?” she said. “Like that guy that got everybody stuck out on the ice?”
He cocked his head and wondered whether she was kidding.
She fumbled a piece of paper out of her pocket and read: “My bro the traveler have a good rest / Enjoy those breezes, partake of life’s zest / When reindeer depart, you still have your bro / And his goodwill forever, I’m sure you know.” She smiled and hopped back in the car.
“Thank you,” he said, as seriously as he would have thanked a mourner at a funeral. “Thank you very much, Donna.”
It had not always been a pleasure for Royal to be Brandt’s brother. Brainy Brandt, a lush in his teens, now a teetotaler: jogged five miles minimum, daily, in Central Park before work. Lived in a penthouse rented from some Saudi’s daughter, and one wall of the bathroom was a waterfall. Brandt had changed when his high-school sweetheart left him fifteen years before, after a year of marriage. His best friend was English—a former boyfriend of the late Princess Di. Brandt spent a couple of weeks every couple of months in London, playing polo and seeing plays, and said repeatedly that friendship was all that mattered; he’d never marry again. He and Royal talked on the phone every few weeks. In Royal’s opinion, Brandt became kinder every year—so much so that Royal wondered if he took notes during their calls, or whether he taped them and just gave the recording to his secretary, who understood she should do anything possible to facilitate … well, to call in the reindeer, if that was what she thought best.
Royal drove. Dick slid the passenger seat all the way back, tugged the brim of his cap toward his nose. On the radio, Elvis was dreaming of a blue Christmas. But Elvis wasn’t alive, and now when the tourist ladies went weeping to Graceland their faces were more immobile every year, their ages increasing along with the number of Botox injections. He wondered if Graceland was decorated, if there was a Christmas tree to enthrall the people touring the low-ceilinged rooms, as they stared solemnly at the pool-table deity? What strange creatures their generation’s gods had turned out to be.
They stopped for a microbrew at Second Sunset, a bar that overlooked the channel, with a thatched roof and seagulls walking the rails like prissy prison guards. “We’re outta Gotham, man,” Dick said, locking thumbs with his buddy. By which, of course, he meant New York City. He was proud of himself for having found cheap flights to Florida that landed in Fort Lauderdale, adding a little time to the trip but allowing them to avoid the usual hectic, expensive Miami mess, and to save half the price of a ticket.
The bartender was bare-chested, wearing a leather vest. His head was shaved. He wore jeans with holes here and there, like stars that didn’t quite fit the celestial grid. A gold chain necklace dangling a shell. Gay, or just a Florida dude? Hard to tell in the Keys. No earring. Maybe straight. Especially if the holes in his jeans hadn’t been frayed with a razor. A few seats down, on barstools, two women talked animatedly about the size of the rats outside some restaurant. Neither seemed at all squeamish; it was more like talk about “the one that got away.” The fatter woman kept flexing her foot, slapping her sandal against her heel. As Royal watched, trying not to appear to be looking, a muscular arm pushed something past his peripheral vision: a shot of tequila each, “on the house.” Did that mean they didn’t look like tourists, that the bartender thought they might come back? If so, did that make him straight, a guy who bonded with his bros, or gay, thinking about how the night might go? Dick left a big tip.
“Good luck with the holidays!” the bartender called, before he even saw the amount of the tip. “Good luck with the holidays”? No clue about his sexuality there.
About 5:30, as the sky was lightening to pink and clouds were darkening to gray, Royal pulled into the breakdown lane and checked the MapQuest directions. “We’re a mile away,” he said to Dick, but Dick was sleeping. “You think the bartender was gay?” he asked, testing. No answer. “Would you sleep through the night if some cop didn’t pull up and hassle us, do you think, sitting there like a ventriloquist’s dummy playing I’m A Tourist In Florida?” Dick’s lips parted stickily. He touched the rim of his cap. He said, “You’ve always got to give yourself the most important role, notice that? You’re Edgar Bergen, I’m Charlie McCarthy. If you’re so smart, why don’t you know whether the guy was gay?”
They were headed for Kegan’s house, empty of Kegan’s longtime girlfriend Sarah, though her daughter Belle, who was either Kegan’s child or wasn’t, still lived there with him. She spent all her time on her Mac, writing and revising personal statements to apply to colleges, though college was three years away, if she could get a scholarship or some sort of financial aid. Sarah and her new boyfriend (an absolute jackass who signed his name “Second Papa,” in the letters he and Sarah wrote Belle, Kegan had complained to Royal) sent money to the girl every month; how much, Kegan didn’t know because Belle had informed him that this was “a personal question.” Belle, who’d inherited Kegan’s distrust of banks, had bought a safe he’d grudgingly bolted into the floor of her closet, joking that the termites would take it down in a matter of months no matter what he did.
“Say wha?” Dick said, leaning forward to lower the radio volume, while simultaneously listening to Royal’s rather long paraphrase of the situation they’d be walking into. Dick’s lips were chapped from winter. His nostrils looked like wood that had been sanded down, the result of a recent cold. “She’s practicing writing personal statements? What the hell are personal statements?”
“She helps old ladies in the community shop for groceries, or something.”
“Okay, Sarah raised a nice child, we’ve always known that,” Dick said, missing the point entirely.
Who knew Kegan had a dog? All he ever talked about was how little money he had, and about Sarah, who was gone for good, anybody understood that. He also talked about Belle and her preoccupation with getting into a good college. Leave it to Kegan not to even mention he had a year-old dog mottled like an ugly neo-Expressionist painting, a mutt with a blue eye and a brown eye and one ear up, one that dangled like a limp leaf, as it had ever since Kegan picked the dog up at the side of the highway and carried it into his house in the palm of his hand. He’d gone out to the mailbox, and there in the gravel had been the half-dead, panting puppy. Which he had named—big joke—“Royal.” The dog loved him. He loved everybody. Kegan mixed canned tuna into his dry food. Every Sunday, Belle made the dog the same cooked-in-butter omelet she and Kegan ate—the one meal a week she was responsible for. The time she’d cut up green pepper and put it into the omelet, the dog had spit out every piece, then rolled in the little collection of soggy green cubes. It was Kegan’s opinion that the dog had better sense than humans. In all ways, Kegan was impressed with the dog. He told them all that—including the fact that he’d also personally stopped eating green peppers—in the first five minutes they were in the house.
Kegan popped open three Coronas, and the three Zetes ceremonially blew into the bottles before taking the first sip (and none of that piece-of-lime shit, either) the way they’d done in the old days. Now, more than thirty years down the line, they stood outside on Kegan’s spongy deck, where every so often the silence was punctured by the buzzing of the electric mosquito catcher. Belle came out to say hello—taller than the last time Royal had seen her, or maybe it was just the platform shoes she wore (apparently, she epitomized Florida style)—then quickly retreated into her room. The dog looked at her with great interest but stayed at Kegan’s side.
“So our road trip’s still on?” Kegan said. “You made the hotel reservation?”
“Yeah, hotel prices down there are extortion,” Royal said, “and I’m not a cheap guy. I took a room with a king and a rollout. It’s on me. And I’ve bought you Christmas presents.”
“Presents? What are they?” Kegan said.
“You don’t tell what presents are. You give them and they’re opened.”
“So give me my present. I’m dying of curiosity,” Kegan said.
To their surprise—to Dick’s, at least—Royal jumped down from where he’d been sitting on the railing and went into the house and unzipped his suitcase. He came back with three boxes wrapped in Christmas paper and handed one to their host.
“Does it explode when I remove the top?” Kegan asked—a reference to a prank they’d pulled years ago. The present was an old-fashioned-looking telephone receiver with a long cord, the kind you saw all over New York now, in the same shade of green that appeared for the first time in the seventies when pink was “shocking pink,” so maybe the green was “violent green.” You plugged them into your cell phone, and the reception was much better, and also you were participating in a joke. Kegan had never seen one and really liked it. “You next,” Royal said to Dick, holding out a smaller box wrapped in shiny red paper. It contained a red-and-green-striped satin thong edged on top with white feathers. Dick put it on his head. “Santa to tower, we’re coming in for a crash landing!” he shrieked. Everybody exploded with laughter. “And here’s something for Belle to make her take her face out of a book,” Royal said. “It’s the entire series of The Wire. It’ll make her grateful she grew up in the Keys.” He tossed the box, wrapped in shiny blue paper, on the cushion of a redwood chair. “And for myself,” Royal said, reaching in his shirt pocket and taking out a small transparent Ziploc bag, “an antique diamond solitaire ring, one and a half carats, rose gold, with channel-set diamonds, that may be offered to another woman—one I have yet to meet—because Sharon said that nothing would be worse than marrying an underachiever, unless it was marrying a materialistic underachiever, which was not where I thought our relationship was going when I won this 1920s beauty in an eBay auction that got pretty out of control in the last thirty seconds. She kept the tufted box with the little pearl button because keeping that wouldn’t be materialistic, but I understand that without the box, the value of the ring may be less.”
“You’re just telling us now, when I spent the whole day with you?” Dick asked.
“Hey, he didn’t tell us he had a dog,” Royal said, pointing to the dog that lay securely wedged between their host’s size 14 sandals.
“I’m sorry to hear Sharon reacted that way,” Kegan said. “She was all over you the time I met you two at that place near Washington Square.”
“She said that to you?” Dick said. “I mean, how exactly did she ask for the box?”
“She just said could she keep the box. I shouldn’t have given it to her. I think she took me aback, if that’s the correct way to say it.”
“Yeah, well, we can make her sorry for dissing you, the same way we’re going to make—”
“Shut up, Dick. She’s got her A.C. off and her window open,” Kegan said, jutting his chin in the direction of Belle’s room.
“Some people are just crazy, you know? We’re supposed to bend over backward not to say women are crazy, but refusing a marriage proposal from Royal, there you go. Crazy.”
“I appreciate your vote of confidence,” Royal said to Dick. “I didn’t realize you thought I’d be such a good husband.”
“Well, I mean, I’d turn you down.”
“I got stone crab for dinner,” Kegan said. “Made a deal with my dentist, who’s got a dozen traps or so. Deal was, I’d bite the bullet about this expensive implant he wants me to do if he gave me enough stone crabs for me and my friends. Belle doesn’t like them. And my other friend, here, is always happy with his tuna fish.” Kegan rubbed his big feet over the dog’s sides. The dog snorted, rearranged itself, and flopped onto its back. Its ears looked like someone had given up while folding origami. “You weary travelers hungry? Like to catch the news on the flat screen, have a shot of Cuervo and a few chips before dinner?” When nobody answered, Kegan said, “You know, it’s unusual, not having any women around. It used to be us outside, and Sharon and Sarah in the kitchen, and that one time at the fireworks, Dick, your very nice girlfriend who had us up to the roof—”
“Beth Anne,” Dick said. “Remarried her first husband.”
“I thought he was sent to military prison.”
“That was the second husband.”
“The one that was younger?” Kegan asked.
“Yeah. Her Ashton Kutcher. Except I don’t think Ashton went out and strangled a guitar player in a bar.”
“We’ve become sort of ridiculous,” Royal said. “Standing around in Florida bouncing rings in our pockets instead of change, with girlfriends who go back to first base like they’re human boomerangs, and Sarah, for God’s sake, going to Vegas to work at some hotel with fake dragons breathing fire outside, some Donald Trump wet dream or something, with some guy she meets at Bikram yoga, for God’s sake, in Florida, where it’s hot as hell to begin with.”
“Thirteen years,” Kegan said.
“My point is, this somehow makes us ridiculous,” Royal said. “I could have left the ring back in New York. Why the hell did I bring it? I’m suddenly a sentimental old fool?”
“Good pawn shop in Marathon. Guy in the witness-protection program runs it. One week he’s got a beak like a parrot, next week the nose is bandaged, hair dyed brown, bandage comes off, he’s got a snub nose half the size of the original honker. I heard he had his pierced ear closed up and airbrushed, or whatever the hell. Something to cover the hole.” Kegan shrugged.
“You know, the more I think about it, the more I really want to get a good answer from John about what the hell he thought he was doing when he screwed us out of that money,” Dick said. “Motherfucker.”
“Keep it down. She’s right behind those blinds, she can hear anything we say. Voices carry out here like we’re talking across water.”
“Kegan, it’s not like she’s in a cloister,” Royal said, frowning deeply.
“It is like she’s in a cloister, and she put herself there, but I respect that, I do,” Kegan said. “She doesn’t drink or do drugs, she doesn’t even go out with guys. She maybe goes out with a group occasionally. It’s too bad some of that maturity didn’t rub off on her mother.”
“I could use some dinner,” Dick said. “If we all crack our teeth eating crab, maybe we can work out another deal with your dentist. I never heard of any doctor striking a deal. Must say something about our present health insurance situation. And excuse me, Royal, but is this a comment on our new world without women you’re making, pissing off the deck?”
“Jesus, what if Belle comes out?” Kegan said. “There’s as many bathrooms inside as bedrooms. Go figure. Selling point of houses here. Everywhere you turn, another john.”
Royal the dog, who’d been sniffing a bug walking along the bottom of the railing, disdained it and walked over to his owner and flopped down. Again, Kegan’s big feet toed the dog’s ribs. “You know, he used to sleep in my hair. I let him in the bed and he’d work his way onto the pillow and fall asleep curled around the top of my head like a puppy yarmulke.”
“I wouldn’t have figured you for a dog person,” Dick said.
“Or a father. Or a volunteer fireman. Somebody who sings in the choir.”
“You sing in a choir?” Royal said, zipping his fly, walking back toward them.
“Yeah, I’m a soprano,” Kegan said. “You should hear me on the Hallelujah Chorus.”
“ ‘For the Lord God om-ni-po-tent reigneth,’ ” Royal baritoned.
“Your shirt’s caught in your fly,” Kegan said.
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” Dick sang in shrill falsetto, as Royal unzipped his fly and tucked his shirt down his pants again, then re-zipped his fly.
“And Prince Philip, what’s the deal with him? We heard on the radio he had a stent put in, or something?”
“All those years, trailing after Her Majesty,” Kegan said. “Prince Philip and the basset hounds. Royal, how about some dinner? You can pretend the stone crabs’ claws are Sharon’s neck.”
“Listen to you, and you want everything nice nice and hush hush, so the nun can concentrate on her devotions!” Royal said.
“I just need to make the sauce,” Kegan said. “It’s Hellmann’s mayonnaise with two key limes squirted into it, a half teaspoon of coarse salt, and a couple tablespoons of horseradish.”
“Lead the way,” Dick said.
“What happened to your tooth that you need an implant?” Royal said, heading into the house behind Kegan.
“Bit down on a sandwich at Bojangle Bill’s with a rock or something in the lettuce and it broke my tooth,” Kegan said. “If I’d eaten lunch at home that day, it wouldn’t have happened. I wash my lettuce. Wouldn’t have been worth it, hearing Sarah bitch if I didn’t. ‘Wash the lettuce, wash the lettuce.’ Then you have to spin it dry for about five minutes, which at least builds your biceps, then you have to dry the lettuce spinner, and pick out the stuff that always gets stuck in the top. Now I wash the lettuce under the faucet, shake it over the floor—it’s tile, anyway—dry it on a dish towel. Times change, bros. Times change.” He handed Royal the mayonnaise jar. He handed Dick the key limes and pointed to the cutting board, which was made of multicolored wood in the shape of the state of Florida.
This was three nights before Christmas, two nights before they drove south to confront John Reynolds in Key West about screwing them over, two nights before Yuliana, the Moldovan girl Royal picked up after a private lap dance on Truman Avenue, got the best Christmas present she ever received which also fit her finger perfectly, two nights before Kegan took off on his own and, as they’d later learn, put down one ice-cold Stoli shot after another, served by a bartender in an elf costume at a beach bar, from which he was ejected when he commented on the elf’s cleavage, after which he apparently wandered down to Dick Dock, stepped out of his Bermuda shorts, Lacoste shirt, and Tevas, and dove into the Atlantic. Three Japanese tourists came upon his body at dawn. Tonight, though, as they stood pouring drinks and mixing mayonnaise with horseradish, it was five nights before Kegan’s funeral, five nights before Royal and Dick rented a car and headed back to New York with Kegan’s dog in the backseat, each trying to manipulate the other into keeping him. Belle didn’t want him. She was, however, tentatively happy to see her mother again—even happier because the boyfriend stayed behind in Las Vegas. Sarah kept insisting that it was all her fault; neither her daughter nor Dick and Royal could reason with her. After the funeral at Christ by the Sea Church (which Kegan had always called “Christ, Chicken of the Sea”), attended by a smattering of people including Kegan’s dentist (who went around afterward giving out business cards that said he was a member of the VFW), Belle explained to Dick and Royal, back at the house, while Sarah sobbed in the bedroom she’d shared with Kegan, that Kegan had been joking with them: The dog’s name was “Loyal,” not “Royal” but her father loved stupid jokes, didn’t he? Like getting drunk and drowning—was that a stupid-enough joke for everybody? And her mother’s grief—wasn’t that inevitable, too? One parent in the desert, the other one going as far south as possible in the continental United States to drown in the Atlantic when she still had three years of high school to go before she could go to college. Maybe that information could be shaped into a good “personal statement.” How many people applied to Ivy League schools and could say that? Or was irony not appreciated in such circumstances? That was what Belle demanded to know, a little hysterically, herself, standing on the deck in the same platform shoes, rhinestone-studded jeans, and black T-shirt she’d worn the night they first arrived.
“Your dad sure did love you, no doubt about that,” Dick said to Belle, not having any idea what to say in response to her outburst. Royal echoed those words. It had been Royal who’d identified Kegan’s body. That was him: the one-time president of their fraternity at the University of Virginia, the one who lived most on the edge, or at least the one who’d made the most sincere retreat from real life. The one with the blue veins on the bulb of his nose from drinking too much. The one starting to get a paunch, in spite of kayaking, basketball, and twice-weekly tennis. Just another guy who, like so many others, had been left by his woman. He’d been wearing black Jockey shorts, nothing else. In India they could have started the bonfire on the beach, but as unpredictable as Key West was, Higgs Beach cremations had not yet become a custom. Instead, Kegan was carried away on a stretcher, pushed into an ambulance as some weedy Rastas suspended their badminton game to stare at the sad, bloated, soggy mess that was what remained of him at dawn. He’d gone to Key West to confront John Reynolds and had ended up confronting vodka shots and a Christmas elf—an elf who’d handed over the guy’s keys and his cell phone to the bouncer, because she’d had enough of him and was sure he’d come back. Royal’s number was the first to pop up—the last name with its double A’s had helped or hurt him all his life—when the cops went to the beach bar to inquire about whether “the deceased” might have been there the previous night. They made the call to the hotel where Royal, still asleep, fumbled for the cell phone on the table a little before noon, expecting it to be Reynolds, enraged, or Yuliana—that was right; her name had been Yuliana. The autopsy found no trace of Kegan’s daily heart medicine (who knew he took it?), which led the coroner to conjecture that because of Kegan’s seriously low blood pressure and no presence of the drugs that should have been in his system, several factors might have contributed—along with alcohol, of course—to the heart attack.
Before Dick, Royal, and Kegan had gone their separate ways when they left Titters that night, they’d had a pretty nasty encounter with Reynolds. They had walked in through the unlocked front door of Reynolds’s house on Catholic Lane—the one he was renting, after he’d had to short sell the big house on Eaton—and strong-armed him into a chair, while they told him in detail what a devious, self-serving shit he was. He’d certainly neglected to tell them he was on the verge of bankruptcy, and that if he declared it they’d be low on the totem pole of creditors, which meant he had his own little pyramid scheme going. He’d known when he borrowed their money that the bank was about to repossess his house, which meant he could get no further loans against it, which meant he wouldn’t have his promised 50 percent to put down on the old schoolhouse conversion project, which meant he’d have had to appeal to them for even more money if the schoolhouse investors had accepted his offer. Cowering in the chair in his cut-off jeans and “Mile O” tank top with the white painted “O” crumbling like dandruff, his tennis shoes and his big fat diver’s watch, he’d tried to convince them all over again that he was a good businessman. But he wasn’t. He only pretended to have access to cash, to loans, to know the way to grease the palms of the code-enforcement guys. They made him turn over his wallet: All that was in it was a driver’s license and a five-dollar bill and a rubber, which Dick opened and stretched over Reynolds’s head as he screamed they were tearing out his hair. “Who cares, Reynolds! We lose a shitload of money, you lose your fucking hair?” Dick had hollered in his face, then he’d gone into the kitchen and returned with kitchen shears and, as Royal pinned Reynolds’s shoulders to the back of the chair, cut off gobs of hair, pushing so hard with the tips of the shears that Reynolds bled. On the table was a silver Christmas tree with fake snow on the branches. Dick cut two boughs and returned to the chair and punctured the stretched prophylactic so that two green antennae protruded from each side above Reynolds’s ears, as little rivulets of blood ran down his face. They turned on Christmas music, loud, and tied him to the chair with bungee cords triple-knotted behind the chair and walked out. They walked down the street to the gated cemetery, where young women in halters and little skirts steered their bikes around the speed bumps, calling, “Merry Christmas!” to them. Kegan, who knew Key West pretty well, led Dick and Royal down an alleyway that led to the back parking lot of a strip joint beside a liquor store. That was where Dick met Anja, who lured him into a private room for a lap dance. Kegan—still fuming about all the money down the drain—said no thanks to both girls who approached him—he didn’t want to be tricked anymore; he wanted his fucking money back from Reynolds, that was what he wanted—and sat back gloomily with his beer bottle, waiting for the pole dancer to begin her routine again. Royal bought a Moldovan girl champagne, which had about as much resemblance to champagne as Royal had to royalty. Several expensive plastic flutes later, she snuck him her number and whispered when she’d be off work. Oh, right—to be mugged by her brothers, no doubt. He left Dick and Kegan in Titters and walked to their hotel, watched TV for a few minutes—Jon Stewart, what was with that guy and his perfect silver hair and his twirling pencil?—then flipped through a guide to Key West that offered pizza delivery, biplane rides, windsurfing, an all-night pharmacy, and transgender counseling. Maybe all in one day would be fun, he thought. He channel surfed, did not much of anything but stare at the TV for a half hour or so, wondering why his mood was so bad—of all things, he had been thinking about the terrible falling out he’d had with Dick back, what, twenty-five years ago, when he’d dared to date Dick’s girlfriend after they’d separated, and Dick had thrown a punch at him. He’d ducked it, grabbing Dick’s hand, and then Dick had started to cry, which was what he really held against him, wasn’t that it, really? In the intervening years, neither of them had ever mentioned the incident.
Royal took a deep breath and exhaled, looked around the room where their suitcases sat—did Kegan’s putting his duffel on the sofa mean he was claiming the fold-out, and Dick and Royal could share the king? He suddenly decided what the hell and took out his cell phone and called the number Yuliana had given him. Good she’d written her name: Who’d know how to spell that?
An hour later, after he’d showered and bought a pack of American Spirits and smoked two, Yuliana—as arranged—came out the unmarked back door of Titters and led him by the hand (bony fingers!) around the corner, opening a side door of the hotel there and turning on the lights, then leading him through the laundry room (what the fuck!) to a Murphy bed sort of contraption: a converted closet with a mattress on some sort of platform shoved three-quarters of the way inside it, and dusty navy-blue curtains stretching over the mattress from ceiling to floor, where they were held down by hooks in the concrete. Inside the weird bed/tent she told him to lie down, then unfastened her bra, a cheap purple lace thing that did nothing for him, zero, then she sat on his stomach and told him about her family (her “famblee”): her brother; the violent father (of course). All the while, laundry machines shook and rattled, and every so often someone slammed a door and Yuliana held her breath, though it didn’t seem like anyone entered the laundry room. He told her about his family—the truth, even. That his girlfriend had left him. His mother had died of bone cancer. His older brother ran a corporation in New York and was a big success: He kept his distance, Brandt was in AA and thought much social contact with anybody who wasn’t—with the exception of Brits, for some reason Royal couldn’t fathom—was potentially dangerous, but he looked out for him and was generous, and even if his brother didn’t have a great sense of humor, his secretary Jacki did. The only lie he told Yuliana was that he’d come to the Keys to go fishing.
“When I first get here,” she said, “I’m thinking dolphin are fish like Flipper and I can’t understand who would eat Flipper. But they just call this fish that, you know as fisherman. Nobody is eating the nice guy from the movie.” He asked why they didn’t go to her place, instead of some closet in a hotel laundry room. It depressed him to be on the dirty, uncomfortable little bed, when anybody might walk in. Also, she hadn’t yet mentioned money. “I don’t have bed until 6 a.m.,” she said. “You know warm bed? Three people share bed, everybody eight hours.” He’d never heard of such a thing, but it had the ring of truth to it. He suggested they leave the closet and go to his hotel room, figuring he could leave a note on the door for Kegan or Dick to get lost for an hour or so, if they even came back while he was going at it with Yuliana. The idea didn’t much excite him, though; she seemed young, and asexual. He suspected that she, too, might enjoy a pizza and a biplane ride more.
“You know the Hallelujah Chorus?” he asked her. He was making it a point not to touch her in this ridiculous setup; his hands folded below his collar bones grasped only each other. “Okay,” she said reluctantly. At first he thought that she hadn’t understood but was afraid to say so, but then she said: “Not knowing it by heart. You can hear that at some churches here.”
“How old are you?” he said.
“Twenty,” she said, too quickly, he thought.
“And how much is my night with you going to cost me?”
“You don’t have a price?”
“I have prices, but I like you.”
“That really isn’t possible, Yuliana. I’m a fifty-two-year-old guy with love handles and I stink five minutes after taking a shower. I didn’t shave today. It’s been a stressful day of roughing up, tying up, a former friend who cheated my partners and me out of some money.” He suddenly had an idea that did excite him. “Would you be up for going to his house, maybe you and me putting on a little show for him? After I duct-tape his mouth?”
“You are criminal?” she asked.
“Who’s going to admit to being a criminal?” he said. “I’m an executive. I work in New York City.”
“Then I charge more, because I never see you again,” she pouted. The cheap brassiere dangled loosely in front of her breasts.
“What if you don’t charge me anything, and I give you a really beautiful piece of jewelry?”
“Crap jewelry,” she shot back.
He smiled. “Maybe you should look at it first,” he said. “Let’s get out of here, take a stroll, check out how my former frat brother’s doing, the former head of the IFC, you know what that is? I didn’t think so. Fraternity council. A Jefferson Scholar in his youth, now a loser tied up in a La-Z-Boy. Maybe the two of us can interject some fun into his life, put on a little show.”
“I only do private,” she said.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, shifting his weight onto one hip to stand up. “You see what you think of my crap ring, and if you like it, it’s yours. Then maybe we’ll talk about your moving to New York.”
“Why did you say about Hallelujah Chorus?” she asked, standing, the blue curtain hanging just behind her. One of the washing machines clicked off loudly, sending a vibration through his legs.
“Because I think that should be our special song, Yuliana. Because if you stay in this country you’re going to hear it at Christmas for the rest of your life.”
“Not hear it just in this country,” she said.
“True,” he said, “wherever you go, every time you hear it, you’ll think of me. You’ll tell your grandchildren: Once when grandma was an exotic dancer in Key West, she had sex with a man from New York who gave her a beautiful ring and, being a materialistic girl, she fell in love with him, and their special song was the Hallelujah Chorus.”
“You think I am that kind of girl?”
“Wait till you see the ring,” he said, fingering his pants pocket, where he’d thought to drop it, since that pocket seemed safer than his shirt’s. “Allow me to introduce myself, Yuliana. I’m a man of wealth and taste.”
She frowned, dropping her long thin legs to the floor as if she were dropping oars into water, then leaning forward and standing. He said, “You don’t know what that is, do you? It’s another song, almost as famous as the Hallelujah Chorus. But it was certainly before your time. It was the soundtrack in another lifetime of mine. Back when I was young and never thought I’d have money to lose, let alone tie up a guy who fucked me out of my money, who once walked half the Appalachian Trail with me, which was a considerable distance, and who tutored me in History of Diplomacy, and who used to be one of my best friends. And if you don’t mind, I’d really like to get out of the laundry room now.”
“Okay, follow me,” she said. He watched her walking. She had a very nice ass. She went to the back door, unbolted it, then turned to him. “Let’s see so beautiful ring,” she said suddenly.
He looked at her and wondered if she was as old as twenty. He’d be in big trouble if she was Belle’s age. The room they’d been in smelled of detergent, and the fumes caught up with them as the door opened, its smell even more overpowering as it was diluted with the salt air. She locked the door from the outside. He reached in his pocket and withdrew the little bag, carefully removed the ring and held it out to her under the ugly yellowish overhead lights in the parking lot. He held it upright, between thumb and first finger. “My God,” she said.
He said, “Try it on. We’ll walk over to my former friend’s place. I think you and I can work something out.”
Dick left Titters last, after the second lap dance by the same girl, who had a fire-breathing dragon blowing down a tree or something on her thigh, wandering Duval Street for a while, then going to a movie at the Tropic Cinema, an Art Deco place with a statue of Marilyn Monroe outside and a concession stand where he bought a bag of popcorn and a glass of wine. The movie was about some guy who went crazy, an ordinary sort of guy in some nowhere place who got fixated on building a bomb shelter to protect himself and his family from whatever coming disaster he feared. As he watched, he thought: Imagine being Reynolds. Imagine losing your house, your friends, being on the verge of bankruptcy. There was no excuse for what he’d done, but what if he might still be sitting in the chair? They really couldn’t leave him tied up and just drive away the next day. It wasn’t like his housekeeper was going to find him, or anything. He’d looked so wretched with the prophylactic on his head like one of those infant caps, a buttercup or something, a big rubber nipple pointing up at the ceiling. Nothing that had happened had been motivated by his desire to screw them. Or not directly. What he’d done was wrong, but his own life was more of a mess than any punishment they could dole out. And, after all, it was almost Christmas. In the movie, the nice-guy-crazy-man was climbing out of a big hole that had been bulldozed outside his house. His shocked wife and deaf kid stared in amazement. The problems people had were awful. Reynolds himself had been hospitalized for depression twice that Dick knew of, once during their school years when he had his choice of either being suspended for a semester or going into a substance-abuse program, though they didn’t call it anything so lofty back then. Another time after he seemed to be doing well, building strip malls in upstate New York where his parents lived. He’d been in his thirties then, with two failed marriages behind him. Dick remembered Mrs. Reynolds’s face, her eyes narrowed with worry, asking him in the corridor of the university hospital if he thought her son was going to be all right. Then, as ever, lying came easily to him: He’d told Mrs. Reynolds that her son would be fine, and her eyes had opened just enough that he could see their color. Their color, he remembered all these years later, had been green. It was wrong to leave Reynolds tied up, Dick thought—even if he only felt more charitable toward the world because of the fifty-dollar blow job he’d gotten in the backseat of a parked car with painted windows from a German girl who was going off work at Titters. Reynolds didn’t have the money to give them. From the look of his crappy rental, he didn’t have the money for much, though about now he might really be regretting bringing in the one big comfortable chair.
Dick pushed his empty plastic glass under his seat, along with the empty popcorn bag, and walked out of the movie and back to the rental car, pushed a few buttons that eventually opened the door. He got in, turned on the overhead light, and consulted a map of Key West on a place mat they’d gotten at the bar they stopped at on the way to Kegan’s that for some reason he’d folded and taken with them.
He drove back toward Catholic Lane. He arrived at Reynolds’s house to see it all lit up, the only house on the street that wasn’t dark: A single strand of red Christmas lights wound up the big cactus outside, but the house itself was eerily aglow, like some Thomas Kinkade nightmare. So Reynolds had made his escape. Of course he had. What was he going to do, sit there forever, or struggle free? He was proud of Reynolds for slipping the bungee cords. He continued toward the front door, prepared to apologize, to hope something could be worked out about the lost money in the new year.
The music from inside vibrated the walkway. Behind him, two people on bikes rang their bells and waved as if they knew him. Seasonal goodwill! He smiled. Then he walked a bit farther and looked into the house through the front window, assuming that what he saw must be Reynolds and some other people dancing. A party, after being berated and tied up, humiliated? But no: He was looking at Royal, naked, who looked like he was doing an impersonation of a Jerry Lewis telethon. Reynolds was still tied to the chair, his eyes widening as they connected with Dick’s, the bottom half of Reynolds’s face silver, which Dick realized must be duct tape. It was the Hallelujah Chorus—“For unto us a child is born,” the glass panes vibrating in the window—and Royal was chasing some scrawny naked girl around the room, shrieking as he feinted and sprang forward, arms waving madly, every bit as energetic as he’d been back when he played basketball at UVA, and it was so strange, there was no other way to describe it, it was so strange. Here the two of them were, down from New York City, Royal naked and roaring, some woman trying to escape him, or, it seemed pretty obvious, pretending to be trying to get away, so that when they collided and fell to the floor it seemed like part of their game, all of it choreographed. Reynolds’s head, as his neck twisted from side to side, seemed like a metronome helping them keep up the frantic tempo. Dick had seen plenty of weird shit before, plenty of it, but now he felt implicated, implicated at the same time he was excluded, so that when Reynolds’s wild eyes met his again, he closed his own. The image that appeared behind his eyes was of Reynolds’s mother, back when he and her son were undergraduates, a woman that, at the time, he’d assumed must be the generic age of all grown-ups, but who he now thought must only have been in her forties, asking whether her son would be all right.
What was he supposed to do? Go in?
When Royal came back to the hotel room, fumbling his key in the lock sometime after three in the morning, Dick sprang up from bed and tackled him without even thinking. Royal stank of sweat and alcohol and sex. He toppled easily. As he went down, cursing, Dick had a flash forward in which he was fighting Royal, on top of him on the floor, pounding him. Which would be a different version of what he’d seen through the window, but if he did that, he’d be as debased as Royal. When was there ever going to be any sanity? Why would he fly at his friend like a mountain lion jumping on its prey? He scared himself. But action preceded conscious thought, and he’d been asleep, or passed out after the two double whiskey sours he drank in a bar after he’d slunk away from Reynolds’s place. Where was Kegan? And was Reynolds at least untied, for God’s sake? Dick felt humiliated at their excess. What exactly were they trying to prove? That they could recover money that didn’t exist anymore? Kegan’s insistent calls from Islamorada to both of them in New York had gotten them to Florida, all right—but now, in the middle of the night, almost dawn, Dick had come close to punching out his best friend, and Kegan—where was he? Why wasn’t he leading the battle, if he was so hungry for revenge?
He was dead, but Dick and Royal had no way of knowing that. Royal’s own thoughts had entirely to do with why his old frat buddy had tackled him that way when all he’d been doing was coming back to their hotel room after a night of animated but very mediocre sex, though it had been pretty interesting being observed by the guy who had fucked them over: Reynolds being forced to close his eyes or watch Royal fucking Yuliana, some random whore who now had what should have been Sharon’s ring—because, hey, he wasn’t a liar. Yuliana was going to turn out to be the liar. She wasn’t going to call him in New York, no way. Did he believe what she said, putting on her ugly underwear, pulling on her dress, fastening her belt? He’d offered to walk her home, wherever home might be, back to her warm bed. This mediocre lay, this person with whom he had nothing in common, might move to New York, with its piles of dirty snow, the freezing winds off the Hudson whipping between buildings? No. She’d stay amid palm trees, in what was called by the tourist board “Paradise,” wearing her not-at-all-hard-won sparkler.
The Japanese tourists on Dick Dock called the police when they saw the body face down, slapping against a pylon. They wouldn’t have been there themselves except that they’d gotten lost searching for the Southernmost Point.
Half inch by half inch, Reynolds bumped the chair to the front window and knocked his head against the glass so hard when the mail lady finally arrived the next day, it took seventeen stitches to close the gash.
Yuliana, who was eighteen, moved to New York, studied English in night school, went to Pilates class, renamed herself Julie, and became a well-paid hostess at a restaurant with an unlisted number in the Meatpacking District. On her nineteenth birthday she married Royal in a wedding paid for by his brother that took place atop the Gramercy Park Hotel. It was the first time Royal met the famous Jacki, who was plump and fortyish with hair conventionally called “highlighted” that made her look like a jack-o’-lantern, if a jack-o’-lantern also had hair. Kegan’s dog, renamed Islamorada and called “Isle,” attended the ceremony and the reception. A leash was never necessary; the dog instantly obeyed a firm verbal command. Jacki, by previous agreement, would be taking the dog while Royal and Julie honeymooned on Mustique: A two-week honeymoon, paid for by Brandt, but when the honeymoon couple went to the airport at the end of their two weeks in a beach house with French doors that had opened onto a private patio with a hot tub and a keyboard and bench, they were approached by a dark-skinned person in a clown suit that didn’t quite cover his forearms, his features made antic with white face paint, who ran up to Royal and unrolled a scroll saying Brandt (called “Mr. Brandt” throughout) had rented the house they’d been staying in for another week—they should continue to enjoy their honeymoon. He and Julie laughed and laughed. Two hundred white orchids at the reception, six brass cages of white doves, now this! A year and a half later they had twin boys, and the year after that, Julie left him. A private detective found her immediately, crammed into some other Moldovan’s one-bedroom Hell’s Kitchen apartment with their babies and the other Moldovan’s daughter, but Royal didn’t ask her to come back. Jacki took care of the details of the divorce—Jacki, who now lived with Kegan’s dog in her Park Slope apartment, renamed, after her favorite movie actor, “Penn.” Of course this was no ordinary dog and never had been. In his adaptability, he had proved to be flexible, intelligent, empathetic. What human being could hope to be more? His story follows.
Do you finally get it, that guys that graduate from college can still be pigs, that “human” is just a vague, general term? I don’t know the educational background of the other people who wrung the necks of my brothers and somehow overlooked mine when they threw us out the car window like so many cigarette stubs. It was a time of intense pain, but I had no real concept of “past” or “future” and also no idea how such pain could be endured, let alone a notion that it might end. Then Kegan walked out of his house, flopping along in his big sandals, talking on his cell to some woman he was flirting with, and stopped dead, stunned, reaching down for all that was left of the litter: me. I was at the vet’s, wrapped in a towel, in half an hour. They did some things to me, but it was all an agony of pain, just more. If I’d only known one word, it might have been more. They set my broken back legs, sutured my eye, put in an IV drip. I was put on a heated cushion on the first tier of cages—since I couldn’t move, the door was left open—so people came by and reached in and smoothed the area between my eyes with their thumbs and spoke to me quietly. Belle cried and cried. I spent more than a week there, but since this was all some bizarre fairy tale, Kegan worked out a payment plan with the vet and visited every day, though once he explained to me that he absolutely couldn’t come on Wednesday, only to show up as usual, which came as a relief. I tried to make the kind of eye contact that would let him know how much I appreciated everything. He bought me my first DQ Blizzard on the ride home, where I was held in Belle’s lap on a pillow, though he drank all of it but the one small nibble I was able to take when he removed the lid. I don’t remember that, but I overheard that story so many times about how my face lit up and how Kegan was immediately convinced I was going to live, that it became my reality. I remember when the casts came off, my lying on the pillow above his head. It made him laugh. He’d reach up a big hand and sort of slap/pat me, but whatever that touch meant, it was pure affection. That was the way we went to sleep until it got a little too twisted up for both of us as I grew, and then we started sleeping spoon style. He had a lot of anger, but not toward me. Not much toward Belle, either, though sometimes she caught it. It was always about her mother, which was not a good thing to reproach her with. She was cautious about getting attached to anybody, but he mistook that, understandably enough, for her being bookish and private. Still, he gave her a new Mac for Christmas and never teased her in front of her friends, and always encouraged her, especially once you figured out how to interpret some of his vague comments, or once you got the Zeta Psi mythology down and understood the allusions. Belle got the fact that he cared, even if she didn’t always know exactly what he was talking about. You pick up emotions, you register the essence of things, even if you don’t always understand exactly what’s being said. You also absorb the smells of certain places and sometimes when you least expect it you get a whiff of where you used to live, and it takes you back. A little mystical, I realize. But things you can’t see, like breeze, music, sensory memories there are no words for—though I’m trying my best, here—my belief is that not only do you exist on the planet, but the planet exists inside you, its stars behind your eyes, its retained sunshine warming you from the inside out, as many times as it does from the outside in. I understand why Belle didn’t want any reminders when he died: She would have thought of him every time she saw me. He had a much easier time relating to me than to her. Of course, I was just a dog, with no way to express anything except maybe with a sparkle in my eye, or with my jaw hanging open. Even though she gave me away to a not-bad person—though I notice I was handed off again at the first opportunity—I’ll never get over losing the person I loved most. By the time Belle said, “His name’s Loyal, not Royal, it was just one of his jokes,” and sent me to New York with Royal and Dick, I’d already become a part of her. Now it’s not just Belle applying to colleges, but me, curled up small inside her brain the way I once was when I slept over her father’s head. I’m thinking along with her, having experienced a lot of the same things she did, though she can put them down on paper, I can’t. Because the talking-dog joke is just that: a joke. You think anybody is going to believe a dog writes essays? Good luck to her with the college thing: If education might make the world a better place, a place of more kindness and awareness, I’m all for it. As much good as I’ve experienced, along with having had more than the usual share of good luck, the damage that’s done to you when you’re young—abandonment being one of the worst things—can never be entirely undone, so I’m not of the opinion that the world is a very nice place. If you agree with me, it makes more sense if you take from it what you can: the breeze, the stars, all that.